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Calgary Flames Eric Nystorm slides into San Jose Shark goaltender Evgeni Nabokov during the first period of their NHL hockey game in Calgary, Alberta, April 6, 2009. REUTERS/Jack Cusano


It came down to this: One game, one victory needed to keep their last-gasp playoff hopes alive. Everyone on the Calgary Flames side said all the right things in the prelude to last night's game against the San Jose Sharks - about the need to play with a sense of urgency; of the futility of leaving anything in the tank, with so little time left in the season.

Once again, however, the Flames couldn't translate good intentions into meaningful actions.

The Sharks received a first-period goal from an old warhorse, defenceman Rob Blake, and never trailed in what finished as a 2-1 victory over the Flames. The result coupled with a Colorado victory in Vancouver meant the Flames were eliminated from playoff contention for the first time in seven years.

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On a night when they needed to show some signs of life early, the Flames looked dreadfully uninspired coming out of the game. They were flat, played as though they were stuck in quicksand all night and couldn't mount any kind of a sustained attack against a goaltender, Evgeni Nabokov, who has had an erratic time of it since his Olympic follies on behalf of Russia back in February.

That, of course, is in keeping with what has ailed Calgary all season - an inability to score goals on a consistent basis, no matter who the opposition. They have made any number of goaltenders look like Vézina Trophy candidates with their popgun attack this year.

Rene Bourque's goal 4:20 into the third period drew the Flames to within one - and was the 200th goal that they'd scored this year, making them the last team in the Western Conference to reach those exalted heights. It meant that Jamie McGinn's second-period goal, his 10th of the year for San Jose, stood up as the eventual winner and kept the Sharks two points ahead of the Chicago Blackhawks in the race for the overall conference lead.

Up until now, Calgary had been the only Canadian team to qualify for the playoffs in each of the four years since the lockout season of 2004-05. In every one of those seasons, they lost in the opening round of the playoffs - twice in seven games, twice in six.

In general, because of their grit and willingness to play an old-school style, the Flames are perceived as a team that no one wanted to meet in the playoffs, on the grounds that even if you beat them, they would exact a physical price.

No one understood that reality better than the Sharks, who went seven games with Calgary in the opening round two years ago - and happily applied the dagger to the Flames' playoff hopes last night.

San Jose will get a chance to redeem its flagging playoff reputation later this month.

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The Flames will simply be left asking questions about what went wrong, in a year that began with such high hopes.

Much of the focus this past week has been on whether these might be the final days for team captain Jarome Iginla in a Calgary uniform. Iginla, who has a no-trade clause in his contract, has never given any indication, publicly or privately, that he wants out. Instead, he usually echoes what Mats Sundin always said when he played for Toronto - his preference would be to finish the job he started so many years ago and try to win here.

Iginla patiently answered questions about his recent scoring struggles (one goal in 13 games) yesterday morning - and in typical stand-up fashion, took most of the blame on himself.

Iginla indicated he was still relatively happy in Calgary on a personal level and didn't mind the pressure of being the most recognizable star on a team in a hockey-crazed city, even if that meant a healthy level of scrutiny when things went sour.

Iginla was also blunt about his personal struggles: 69 points in 79 games, for a player that usually averages in the 90s, wasn't good enough.

In theory, Iginla could request a deal to a contender, but realistically, in today's NHL, with teams shuttling in and out of the playoff picture with dizzying irregularity, identifying the bona-fide, legitimate contenders gets more difficult every year. Few would have put Phoenix, Los Angeles, Colorado or Nashville on that list back in October, and yet all four will qualify for the playoffs in the West, ahead of more traditional powers.

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No, it's possible that Iginla will change his mind about tying his future to the Flames, but since changes could be coming anyway, it would make more sense for him to wait it out and see what the future brings - this week, next week, all through the rest of the summer.

Someone's head will be on the chopping block between now and next October and the primary candidate is the man who designed the blueprint for this team - general manager Darryl Sutter. Sutter had some immediate success early in his tenure - a trip to the 2004 Stanley Cup final - but hasn't come close to duplicating those results in the NHL's new era.

As with all regimes, there eventually comes a time when new ideas and a new approach are needed; otherwise, an organization becomes stagnant and grinds to a halt. Nothing much about the current edition of the Flames suggests that they're in step with what currently works and succeeds in the league.

Hasn't, in fact, for some time now.

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About the Author

Eric was the winner of the Hockey Hall Of Fame's Elmer Ferguson award for "distinguished contributions to hockey writing" in 2001. A graduate of the University of Western Ontario's grad school of journalism, he began covering hockey in 1978 and after spending 20 years covering the NHL and the Calgary Flames, joined The Globe in 2000. More

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